Surrounded by Lakers celebs who are infinitely more popular than the latest round of tail-shakers on the television show, King Kobe boogied his way through a fourth-quarter timeout at Arco Arena. The feet were flat, but his willowy legs wiggled like thunder sticks as a familiar song blared.
It wasn't just the surgically repaired right knee that Bryant shook without concern, even if it had only been 30 days since he deemed it 60 percent and 13 days since his preseason ended with a sound-the-purple-and-gold-alarms 26.7 percent shooting mark from the field. It was both knees jiving, and the sideshow was enough to send teammate Lamar Odom into a fit of laughter that ended in just in time for the Lakers to finish off the Kings 112-100 and improve to 5-0.
This dance has indeed resumed again.
The Lakers' 5-0 start that has warranted '10s' from all across the scorer's table has already included a familiar element, this annual (bi-annual, tri-annual?) song-and-dance in which Bryant's demise is predicted and quickly followed by resounding proof against such a notion.
It was there again in his latest outing, a 30-point, 12-assist, 10-rebound performance that not only served as his 17th career triple-double but came with just one turnover. And after the latest Lakers' win put their margin of victory at an average of 13 points, the playful smile worn by Bryant during his lighter moment with Odom had changed to an edgier one as he spoke to the media.
The question posed: "Are you really back to your old self?" The answer, in essence: "This dance, again?"
"I'm 100 percent," he said with that don't-listen-to-my-coach grin.
That was the nicer version of what he said after the Lakers' blowout win over Golden State on Sunday, when he responded to Phil Jackson's assessment that he was less than 100 percent by saying, "I'm 100 percent. I don't give a (expletive) what he says. Leave me alone about my knee. I'm fine."
He's not alone, either. The Lakers are looking mighty fine for a team that -- back-to-back titles and all -- could have been excused if it took a few weeks to regain chemistry and work out the kinks that can come from adding five new players. Instead, Matt Barnes has simply slid into his role as Ron Artest's mini-me, Steve Blake has been a boon off the bench and a huge point guard upgrade over Jordan Farmar on the floor and in the locker room, and the likes of veteran Theo Ratliff and rookies Derrick Caracter and Devin Ebanks are seeing the sort of floor time now that will pay off in the experience department come June.
All of this takes place while another familiar storyline unfolds, as injured center Andrew Bynum is once again inching toward a return that will take this team to a new level of dominance when he arrives some time around Thanksgiving. The collective group, for what it's worth, has been deemed by Jackson the Lakers' deepest since the 1999-2000 championship team.
But unlike that squad, Bryant remains the alpha and the omega of this universe. The hyper focus on his health is warranted, if only because of what his presence or absence will always mean to the chances for a three-peat.
And while he is so often secretive about what it takes to perform at this level despite the always-underestimated wear and tear (he is nearing Michael Jordan in total games played), Lakers assistant Chuck Person said Bryant had to take his already-obsessive work ethic to a new level for his latest bounce back. It's not just the earlier-than-normal hour at which he has recently been clocking in that impressed Person (5:30 a.m.), but the patience and intelligence Bryant showed in how he went about fixing his wayward shot.
"He didn't rush it, and I think what's impressive about it is he knew his legs weren't strong enough to make shots but he didn't change anything mechanically with (his form) just because he was missing shots," said Person, the man long known as "The Rifleman," in part because of his shooting prowess during a 13-year career. "And as his legs progressively got stronger, he started making more shots, putting in extra time in the weight room early in the morning when most of us are asleep.
"He's taking another step. He is relentless at (the goal of) being the best player, and that's why he is."
Bryant is averaging 25 points per game, with his field-goal percentage identical to last season (45.6) and his 3-point percentage having increased from 32.9 to 39.1. His minutes have certainly been monitored (32 per game thus far compared to nearly 39 last season), but the falloff in production, once again, has yet to happen. Jackson, who has focused specifically on the quality of Bryant's defense as the best gauge for his health, conceded Wednesday that his shooting guard has returned to form.
"He's back to normal," Jackson said. "His shot is on. He's got leg strength. I still want to see him run freely, and I keep saying that defensively moving with the kind of quickness that we'd like to see and anticipation. But he played a great game (against the Kings). It's just a matter of building up the strength and getting the conditioning that the season requires.
"I think he's (ahead of) schedule -- at least for what I had (anticipated). He's playing better than what I possibly thought he could play at this time of year."
The collective group breezed through what amounts to six percent of its schedule, but only one game came against a 2010 playoff team. Even that game hardly qualified, as it came against a Phoenix team that lost Amar'e Stoudemire to New York over the summer and is hardly a title contender now.
Still, there is clearly an early focus among this group, a business-like approach mixed with chemistry and cohesion that Jackson acknowledged has carried over from their championship run in June. Odom even talked of striving for perfection, a goal that ensures relative failure every time but also serves as a constant source of inspiration.
"Is (perfection) realistic?" Odom asked. "It's always realistic when you strive for perfection. Being perfect is like a realistic goal for us. It's a way of thinking. It's a thought process."
One that a lively looking Bryant will, as always, have so much to do with.
"We just try to take it game by game -- that's what (Odom) means by that (perfection talk)," Bryant said. "Now we just think about Toronto (Friday's opponent). We're not even thinking about three-peat."
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